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A sprain damages a ligament. Ligaments — a firm, fibrous band of tissue — connects two bones across a joint. Ligaments cross all of the joints in the body. A sprain occurs when a force pushes the bones of a joint apart and injures the ligament. Sprain ratings reflect severity:

  • Grades 1 and 2 — Damage the structure but leaves the ligament intact
  • Grade 3 — Completely tears the ligament; sometimes called torn or ruptured ligaments


Ligament sprain

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Risky Activities

Sprains can occur with everyday activities, but they are more common during sports. Sports with high speeds and risk of collision have an increased risk of sprains, like:

  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Skiing
  • Gymnastics

Factors that may increase your risk of a sprain include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Coordination and balance difficulties
  • Sudden change in direction
  • Impact with object or other person
  • Misstep that causes a sudden strain at a joint

To reduce your chance of getting a sprain:

  • Use proper techniques to help avoid awkward motions and missteps
  • Participate in flexibility, strength and fitness training

Signs of a Sprain

Symptoms of a sprain may include:

  • Pain immediately after the sprain — without treatment, the pain becomes worse over the next 24 hours
  • A popping sound
  • Local swelling, often within minutes
  • Bruising
  • Trouble moving the joint
  • Increased pain when putting pressure on the injured area

The most common joints involved include:

  • Ankle
  • Knee
  • Thumb or finger joints
  • Shoulder

Your doctor will diagnose the damage with X-rays and/or MRI scans.

How to Treat a Sprain

Treatment will depend on the joint involved and the extent of the injury. Options include:

  • Rest
  • Elevating limb to decrease swelling
  • Bandage
  • Ice and heat
  • Pain medication

After your sprain heals, rehabilitation exercises may help to strengthen muscles and increase range of motion. 

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Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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